Friday, October 31, 2014

True Crime Roundup IV

The '20s were a time of feverish activity in the fields of the arts, science, sports, politics—and crime.

~ "A Counter-Attack on Crime" (1922):
IF WE ASSUME that the first function of government is the protection of life and property, then government is failing in the United States, particularly in all the big cities, contends the New York World. In New York City, declares this paper, "crime is no longer an occupation; it is an industry, highly organized and directed with extraordinary cunning."  . . . — THE LITERARY DIGEST (March 4, 1922)
~ "Hair As a Detective" (1922):
A MICROSCOPIC STUDY OF HAIR for use in detective work has been made by the police department of Berkeley, Cal.  . . . material of this sort is being used by the Berkeley police, in solving crime mysteries, more extensively than in any other police department in America.  . . . — THE LITERARY DIGEST (April 1, 1922)
~ "Foiling Thieves with a Flexible Key" (1922):
A flexible key, one that will go into and work in a tortuous hole, has been developed in Germany. The many robberies that are constantly reported everywhere have created a demand for such a key.  . . . — THE LITERARY DIGEST (April 29, 1922)
~ "Conan Doyle's Heaven" (1922):
. . . Heaven is described by Conan Doyle, we read in newspaper reports, as the land of fulfilled ideals, the place where the disharmony and worry of this life are not, where the old resume young manhood and womanhood, and where children grow to maturity. Buildings and towns are there, and all our domestic animals; but everything is on a higher plane, where there is neither unhappi-ness nor wrong. In his creed, there is no such place as hell.  . . . — THE LITERARY DIGEST (May 6, 1922)
~ "Criminals on the Causes of Crime" (1922):
. . . "When he [a young man] gets into a life of stealing he finds that there are organized sets or gangs of thieves. He finds that they have their lawyers, that they have professional bondsmen and professional witnesses. He finds that the gang pools its procedure; that when he belongs to the gang that his chances of beating a case are good and he can go on stealing. He observes that the man who works alone easily gets caught and is put away."  . . . — THE LITERARY DIGEST (May 6, 1922)
~ "Ending the Narcotic Menace" (1922):
. . . It is not yet realized, we are told, that drug addiction is also rapidly spreading in this country, and that the habit of taking hypodermic "shots" and "sniffing coke" is becoming wide-spread among all classes of society, while the criminals are said to be finding opium a tonic for their trade.  . . . — THE LITERARY DIGEST (June 10, 1922)
~ "Sterner Justice for Criminals" (1922):
. . . "The trouble with the rules of evidence . . . is that the changes which have been made in them have been almost invariably in favor of the defendant."  . . . — THE LITERARY DIGEST (June 24, 1922)
~ "Ireland from a Scotland Yard Notebook" (1922) [12 pages]:
. . . From late September to the week before Christmas, when Archbishop Clune of Australia made his plea for a Truce of God, the rupture was complete. Both sides flooded the press with attacks; attempts were made to bomb the House of Commons; military activity in Ireland was multiplied and magnified.  . . . THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY (April 1922)
~ "Janus-Headed Ireland" (1922) [13 pages]:
. . . The United States was both the thorn and the rose of the Irish problem. . . — THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY (June 1922)
~ "America and the Opium Trade" (1922) [8 pages]:
. . . These smuggling gangs are powerful and well organized; and the profits are so enormous that the trade is well worth the risks involved. The conditions that exist in New York could be duplicated in other cities, both in Europe and America. At present, London and Paris papers contain almost daily accounts of raids on these peddlers and smugglers; and the reason that these cities are not as alive to the danger as ourselves is because of matters of public health are of less interest to Europeans than to Americans. The cause of this immense supply of drugs is the immense overproduction of opium, for which Great Britain is chiefly responsible.  . . . — THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY (June 1922)
~ "To Stop Automobile Bandits" (1922):
THE THOMPSON SUBMACHINE-GUN, intended to prevent getaways in motor-cars by gangs of robbers, has now shown its value as an effective weapon for this purpose . . . This weapon . . . is the lightest automatic gun in existence, weighing only 9½ pounds and firing .45-caliber bullets at the rate of 1,000 per minute.  . . . — THE LITERARY DIGEST (July 15, 1922)
~ "Bootlegging Airplanes" (1922):
These people are probably not smuggling rum.
. . . In course of time there must be a State police driving airplanes as well as riding horses. Then suspicious planes will be 'held up' or followed by 'traffic cops' lying along aerial routes connecting such cities as Montreal and New York.  . . . — THE LITERARY DIGEST (July 22, 1922)
~ "Murder by Wholesale" (1922):
. . . "Laws are the product of civilized society. They are made to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. When they fail in doing either one of these two things, they fail society, and society degenerates into savagery. Whenever you find a lax enforcement of law you find crime. Public officials can never have an alibi."  . . . — THE LITERARY DIGEST (July 22, 1922)
~ "Dime Novels in Lavender" (1922):
Time was when the very term "dime novel" sent a thrill of horror down the spine of many a worthy parent. The agency of dime novels was thought to be responsible for the moral downfall of youth in great numbers. Now that they no longer interest the young, their only place seems to be a museum . . . . — THE LITERARY DIGEST (July 29, 1922)
~ "Inkless Finger-Prints" (1922):
. . . police use of finger-prints, while still important, is numerically surpassed by commercial use.  . . . — THE LITERARY DIGEST (August 19, 1922)
Resource:
- Our last True Crime Roundup is HERE.

Category: True crime

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Who Was Dexter Drake?

The creation of pulp writer Elsa Barker, Dexter Drake appeared in both novels and short stories; his creator, however, preferred spending more time on Western romances and spiritualism (see the Wikipedia article HERE for more).

THE COBRA CANDLESTICK.
By Elsa Barker (1869-1954). 
J. H. Sears & Co.
1928. 293 pages. $2.00
[Full review] Somebody busted Mr. Marshbitter over the head with that old prop of the detective-fictioneers—the heavy blunt instrument. Yes, he was sitting in his library, and although the nearby landscape was fairly crawling with friends and relatives, nobody heard a sound or saw a sign of the murderer. Then in came the amateur sleuth—rather dumb, this one; and after that we got sort of mixed up. We guess the plot is all right, but we couldn't seem to get excited about it. We've read so many detective yarns lately that we have to have our suspense drawn pretty taut, and the rubber in this one was weak. Still, it has a map of the scene of the crime that you may like to puzzle over. — Walter R. Brooks, "Picked at Random," THE OUTLOOK (December 5, 1928)
[Full review] DEAD men tell no tales, and so John Marshbitter, having inadvertently found a strange letter that presaged evil, is murdered, leaving his entire family under an apparently impenetrable cloud of suspicion. Dexter Drake, master detective, solves the secret. — THE BOOKMAN (March 1929; Jump To page 126, middle)
[Review excerpt] . . . The outcome is a gratifying and complicated plot, which does a surprisingly competent job at directing attention away from the obvious suspect and dropping clues that played fair with the reader. The only blotch on the solution is that Dexter Drake withheld one piece of information . . . — Tom Cat, BENEATH THE STAINS OF TIME (January 14, 2012)
THE C.I.D. OF DEXTER DRAKE.
By Elsa Barker (1869-1954).
J. H. Sears & Co.
1929. 302 pages. $2.00
Collection: 10 stories.
It was unclear how many shorter stories the Drake character appeared in; this review says a dozen, but the FictionMags Index lists only ten (and one of those is questionable). Doug Greene, THE source for all things related to mystery and detective fiction, says FictionMags got it right:
[Full review] THESE twelve [sic] episodes of Dexter Drake, international detective, are the reminiscences of his assistant, Paul Howard. He reviews some of the most interesting and prominent cases in which his principal stepped in and succeeded where the police had failed. Those familiar with Drake's solution of the Cobra Candlestick case last year will be keenly interested in his newest exploits. — "Notes on New Books," THE BOOKMAN (December 1929)
The FictionMags listing of the Dexter Drake stories:
   (1) "The Mystery of Cabin 135" (ss), The Red Book Magazine, Dec 1925
   (2) "The Stains on the Mantel" (ss), The Red Book Magazine, Feb 1926
   (3) "The Sauerkraut Riddle" (ss), The Red Book Magazine, Mar 1926
   (4) "The Starbuck Puzzle" (ss), The Red Book Magazine, Jun 1926
   (5) "The Seven Threats" (ss), The Red Book Magazine, Aug 1926
   (6) "The Jade Earring" (ss), The Red Book Magazine, Nov 1926
   (7) "The Key in Michael" (nv?), The Red Book Magazine, Jan 1927 [reprinted in EQMM, May 1942 and AHMM, December 15, 1985]:
"In 1920, Dexter Drake solves a mixed-alphabet monoalphabetic substitution cipher that uses the numbers on a roulette wheel to mix the alphabet. The cipher message uncovers a puzzle in the form of a short poem that leads to a Russian family treasure. The story is very well written and plausible and there is a good discussion of Drake's thought processes as he unravels the mystery." — Cryptology in Fiction
   (8) "The Green Face" (ss), The Red Book Magazine, Mar 1927
   (9) "The Manicure Mystery" (ss), The Red Book Magazine, May 1927
   (10) "The Galt Case" (ss), The Red Book Magazine, Jul 1927
Resource:
- See Curt Evans's THE PASSING TRAMP HERE for more about Elsa Barker.

Category: Detective fiction

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"An Excellent Detective Story, Which Uses All the Tricks of That Trade and Yet Makes Good Fun of Them"

THE RED HOUSE MYSTERY.
By A. A. Milne (1882-1956). 
E. P. Dutton & Co.
1922. 277 pages. $2.00
Online HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE (audio).
The creator of Winnie the Pooh authors a not half bad mystery story:
. . . The setting is an English country house, where Mark Ablett has been entertaining a house party consisting of a widow and her marriageable daughter, a retired major, a wilful actress, and Bill Beverley, a young man about town. Mark's long-lost brother Robert, the black sheep of the family, arrives from Australia and shortly thereafter is found dead, shot through the head. Mark Ablett has disappeared, so Tony Gillingham, a stranger who has just arrived to call on his friend Bill, decides to investigate. Gillingham plays Sherlock Holmes to his younger counterpart's Doctor Watson; they progress almost playfully through the novel while the clues mount up and the theories abound. — Wikipedia ("The Red House Mystery")
While the novel was generally greeted with approval, not everyone was overjoyed to see it:
The Red House Mystery was immediately popular; Alexander Woollcott called it "one of the three best mystery stories of all time," though Raymond Chandler, in his 1944 essay "The Simple Art of Murdercriticised Woollcott for that claim, referring to him as, "rather a fast man with a superlative." Chandler wrote of Milne's novel, "It is an agreeable book, light, amusing in the Punch style, written with a deceptive smoothness that is not as easy as it looks [...] Yet, however light in texture the story may be, it is offered as a problem of logic and deduction. If it is not that, it is nothing at all. There is nothing else for it to be. If the situation is false, you cannot even accept it as a light novel, for there is no story for the light novel to be about." — Wikipedia ("The Red House Mystery")
Other reviews:
[Full review] A murder and detective story by the author of 'Mr. Pim' and 'The Dover Road,' better written than most crime stories, as might be expected from the authorship. Its peculiarity is that the mystery is, not who committed the murder, but what were the cause and the method of the crime. — "The New Books," THE OUTLOOK (July 5, 1922)
[Full review] Humor and humanness are the unusual contributions brought to the detective story by this jack of all literary trades and master of most. Mystery and thrills, of course. — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (August 1922; Jump To page 629, bottom)
[Full review] An excellent detective story, which uses all the tricks of that trade and yet makes good fun of them. The style is charming, the manner civilized. If Mr. Milne can write as well as this it is perhaps as well that Conan Doyle has lost himself in the glimpses of his particular spooky moon. — "Books in Brief," THE NATION (September 20, 1922)
[Review excerpt] . . . The first thing you need to know about The Red House Mystery is that it’s hilarious – it’s as much a comedy of manners as it is a mystery. The tone of the book reminded me quite a bit of The Moonstone, actually. Milne’s book is not long enough to be quite as immersive a reading experience, but I loved them both immensely for very similar reasons. And though it’s Conan Doyle that the characters explicitly reference, Wilkie Collins’ influence is really just as noticeable.  . . . — THINGS MEAN A LOT (June 24, 2010)
[Review excerpt] . . . The detective, who’s somewhat along the lines of a Lord Peter character, is competent without being annoying and charming without going over-the-top. His Watson isn’t a dunce, thank God, and the pair of them make an entertaining team.  . . . — HERE THERE BE BOOKS (9 July 2012)
[Review excerpt] . . . At the end of the book, I was really wishing that his publishers had allowed Milne to write more mysteries. The wit, sarcasm, and humor that is so prevalent in the Winnie the Pooh books are all on full display with The Red House Mystery.  It was a fun, light romp of a mystery that was pure brain enjoyment. The crime itself is far fetched and the characters are over the top, but the I wouldn't have had it any other way. — Ryan, WORDSMITHONIA (April 17, 2012)
Resources:
- More reader reviews are at GOODREADS, located HERE.
- Sixteen pages of reviews of the Dover edition of The Red House Mystery begin HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

"There Is Enough Plot to Furnish Half a Dozen Books"

RAVENSDENE COURT.
By J. S. Fletcher (1863-1935).
Alfred A. Knopf.
1922. 315 pages.
Online HERE, HERE, and HERE.
The murder of two brothers at the same time. though six hundred miles apart, is only the first of many mysteries surrounding Ravensdene Court. How could the two brothers have been murdered when they were both on a ship that went down with all hands off the coast of China three years earlier? What was the significance of the etching on the tobacco box that disappeared from the inquest? Why was someone looking for the Chinaman Chuh Fen who supposedly went down on the same ship as the two murdered brothers? Find the answers in this tale of intrigue, mystery, and buried treasure within the pages of … Ravensdene Court. — Resurrected Press description
[Full review] Starting with a dual murder, Mr. Fletcher unravels his patchwork quilt with amazing skill, then sews it together again. The best work of this master of detective fiction, with quaint atmosphere, thrills, mystery, and love. — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (August 1922; go to page 628, top)
[Review excerpt] . . . as in all Mr. J. S. Fletcher's stories, there is enough plot to furnish half a dozen books, for many of the side issues have not even been touched upon in this article. — "Robbing Graves for Treasure," THE LITERARY DIGEST (August 19, 1922)
[Full review] Although a bit formulaic, Fletcher generally comes up with a half decent story which is mostly set in the North of England. This one has the usual country house owned by an eccentric old chap with the obligatory attractive young niece. On the way to the house to catalogue the library our hero bumps into a strange old seafaring man asking questions about local graveyards and looking for a certain name. He, of course, gets bumped off and when the authorities try to get hold of his next of kin, a brother living hundreds of miles away, they find that he was also murdered on the same night. A bit far fetched maybe, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. — John, GOODREADS (April 15, 2013)
[Full review] A classic British mystery complete with a young and handsome amateur sleuth, a young and beautiful woman with pluck, buried treasure, a mysterious murder, a kidnapping, stolen jewels, essentially the works. J. S. Fletcher wrote to a formula, but it is a fun and entertaining formula, and so long as one is not too much of a stickler for believability, it's a treat. — Brenda Mengeling, GOODREADS (June 17, 2011)
Resource:
- It seems like only yesterday that we were talking about J. S. Fletcher, and SO IT WAS.

Category: Detective fiction

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"The Ending Was a Let-down"

THE RAYNER-SLADE AMALGAMATION.
By J. S. Fletcher (1863-1935).
Alfred A. Knopf.
1922 [1917 in England]. 303 pages.
Online HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.
One reader says it's too easy to guess the culprit; your mileage may vary:
When businessman Marshall Allerdyke receives a late night message to meet his cousin in Hull, he makes a late night drive only to find on his arrival that his cousin is dead. Further investigation reveals that he had been carrying a fortune in jewels that has now gone missing. Allerdyke vows to track down the murders at any cost. But to do so he must discover whether the mysterious woman he had met traveling to Hull was the one who left the jeweled buckle in his cousin’s room, and if he can trust his cousin’s American business associate Franklin Fullaway. But most important of all, he must determine what role was played by The Rayner-Slade Amalgamation! — Resurrected Press description
[Review excerpt] . . . most of the detectives, professional and amateur, are requested to be at a certain tea-house in Hyde Park at a certain day and hour when they are assured the mystery will be cleared up and they will witness the arrest of the criminals, for there is more than one. The scene at the tea-house is very good and the dĂ©nouement will prove a surprize to most of the readers. — "Murders and Jewels," THE LITERARY DIGEST (July 15, 1922)
I wish I could give this story 3-1/2 stars. It was a great Fletcher mystery—right up to the very end, and then it just seemed to fall apart! I really enjoyed the story almost all along. There were twists and turns, interesting characters, great story-telling. But the ending was a let-down. Threads were left hanging. The obligatory romance popped up with no forewarning. Disappointing ending. — Kathy, GOODREADS (July 13, 2011)
Resources:
- More GOODREADS reviews are HERE.
- Other ONTOS visits with Fletcher are HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Thoroughly Enjoyable for Followers of Detective Stories"

MEN OF AFFAIRS.
By Roland Pertwee (1885-1963).
Alfred A. Knopf.
1922. 285 pages.
Online HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.
[Full review] THERE is not much to say concerning "Men of Affairs" except that it is original, well told, and thoroughly enjoyable for followers of detective stories. Quite as good as J. S. Fletcher at his best. Its incidents might have taken place in medieval Venice with the threat of a gold cup of poison always off stage.
Yet so skilfully has Roland Pertwee used his rather sparse style and carefully chosen detail, that the thrills of modern business competition, colored to middle ages tint, yet preserve the aspect of reality. The narrative moves unctiously, and the mechanics are ably concealed. — J. F., "The Editor Recommends: A Thriller of Parts," THE BOOKMAN (July 1922; go to page 523, middle right)

Category: Detective fiction

"A Straight Sherlock Holmes Finish"

TWO DEAD MEN.
By Jens Anker (1883-1957).
Translated from the Danish by Frithjof Toksvig.
Alfred A. Knopf.
1922. 211 pages.
Online HERE, HERE, and HERE.
Before Nordic noir there was, you might say, Nordic Holmes:
[Full review] A particulary live detective story with a straight Sherlock Holmes finish. — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (August 1922)

Category: Detective fiction

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"You Fancy Yourself Quite a Toff But I'll Show You I'm Toffer Than You Are"

DEDUCE, YOU SAY.
Warner Brothers.
1956.
Video: 7 minutes and 8 seconds.
Online HERE.
"Watkins, in a moment there will come a knock at the door heralding the start of the Mystery of the Shropshire Slasher. Answer it. My pants are caught on a nail."

Category: Sherlock Holmes parody

Monday, October 13, 2014

OLD-TIME DETECTION, Summer 2014

(GIVE ME THAT) OLD-TIME DETECTION.
Summer 2014. Issue #36.
Old-Time Detection Special Interest Group of American Mensa, Ltd.
44 pages (including covers). $6.00

If you like mystery and detective fiction of ANY era, OLD-TIME DETECTION is the perfect choice. Editor Arthur Vidro has done a brilliant job of retrieving "lost" or simply neglected nuggets from the past and bringing them back from undeserved obscurity.

This issue covers a lot of ground: detective fiction from the '20s all the way up to news about the latest reboot of the Poirot series.

Contents:

HAYCRAFT-QUEEN LIST:
- A look at BEFORE THE FACT.
. . . BEFORE THE FACT is not a traditional crime novel. In this psychological suspense novel told from the point of view of the victim, we follow her life for several years.  . . .
35-PLUS YEARS AGO:
- Reviews by Jon L. Breen of books published in 1972, 1976, and 1977.

REFERENCE SHELF:
- Charles Shibuk examines two important works about the genre.
. . . I am, however, less than enchanted by Mr. Symons' casual unmasking of too many villains, and this includes the character who was responsible for the demise of the late Mr. Ackroyd, and his revelation of too many plot devices whose inventors took a great deal of time and effort to keep concealed.  . . .
MINI-REVIEWS:
- Critiques of books by Therese Benson, Goodwin Walsh, Neil Gordon, Harry Kemelman, Frank Gruber [THE MIGHTY BLOCKHEAD], and John Dickson Carr [THE BLACK SPECTACLES = THE PROBLEM OF THE GREEN CAPSULE].
. . . Carr so often proclaimed his adherence to the fair-play rule that it is unexpected when he engages in a bit of misdirection that few readers would consider fair. Carr's plots are puzzling enough without having the additional challenge of trying to discover when to believe the sleuth.  . . .
AUTHOR SPOTLIGHTS:
- A quick look at Ngaio Marsh and James Hadley Chase.

AT THE CINEMA:
William Everson tells us about THE CRY OF THE CITY.
LOOKING BACKWARD:
- Reviews by Charles Shibuk that originally appeared a generation ago [including Christie's PASSENGER TO FRANKFURT and titles by R. L. Goldman and F. J. Whaley].
. . . PATTERN IN BLACK AND RED is an excellent detective novel and a welcome reminder of the Golden Age in America.  . . .
"LOST" FICTION:
- Ellery Queen solves "The Man Who Wanted to Be Murdered," last published in 1940.
. . . There in the room next to him sat a man who had wagered over a million dollars he would be dead in less than a week, a man who had practically offered four different people a fortune to kill him. And here, pacing up and down the hall outside—waiting—seemingly helpless to prevent whatever crime the old man was bent on, was Ellery Queen.  . . .
MEETING FRED DANNAY:
- In 1946, young Don Yates set out to meet half of the Ellery Queen team.
. . . What followed—his accepting my manuscript and promising to give it a careful reading, his patient signing and inscribing of all my books, the hours he spent lovingly displaying and describing the treasures in his collection—occurred in a magical dimension out of time. When I left, with a handshake and his good wishes for a safe trip home, evening was settling in over Brooklyn.  . . .
MEGA-REVIEWS:
- A look at THE BEST OF ELLERY QUEEN and a look at TEN DAYS' WONDER.
. . . Suddenly he sees the motif, the pattern for all the crimes that have been occurring. He counts the crimes. No, not all the crimes, for one crime is missing. Let's see, which one is it? And then it hits him. The one crime that hasn't happened, but must happen, is murder.  . . .
CHRISTIE CORNER:
- Updates in the world of Dame Agatha Christie.

THE READERS WRITE.

PUZZLE.

Subscription information:
- Published three times a year: spring, summer, and autumn.
- Sample copy: $6.00 in U.S.; $10.00 anywhere else.
- One-year U.S.: $18.00 ($12.50 for Mensans).
- One-year overseas: $40.00 (or 20 pounds sterling or 25 euros).
- Payment: Checks or cash or U.S. postage stamps.
- Mailing address:
Arthur Vidro, editor
Old-Time Detection
2 Ellery Street
Claremont, New Hampshire 03743
- Web address:
oldtimedetection@netzero.net

Category: Detective fiction

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"The Reader Will Hurry Breathlessly Through the Twenty-six Chapters"

When shallow critics characterize all Golden Age mysteries as involving "the body in the library," they're wrong of course; you have to wonder, however, if they might not have this particular book in mind as the template upon which they've been basing their stereotype:

THE YELLOW STREAK.
By Valentine Williams (1883-1946).
Houghton Mifflin Co.
1922. 341 pages, $1.75
Online HERE, HERE, and HERE.
Other editions listed HERE.
[Review excerpt] IMAGINE a billiard-room of an English country house where Mary Trevert has just refused Robin Greve, the man she loves, announcing at the same time her engagement to their host, Hartley Parrish, a man of unknown antecedents but enormous wealth.
This is a great blow to Robin who abruptly leaves the billiard-room and, passing through the hall where many of the guests are seated, goes past the library into the garden.
Fifteen minutes later a shot is heard from the library where Parrish was busy and, on an entrance being forced, he is found lying on the floor, a pistol in his hand, a bullet in his heart.
The police are summoned, the guests and servants are questioned, the usual procedure followed. Was it murder or suicide? Opinion is divided.
Thus the scene is set for those who enjoy a good detective story, and their name is legion, and to them "The Yellow Streak" by Valentine Williams, can be recommended.  . . . — "A Lover Not a Murderer," THE LITERARY DIGEST (June 10, 1922)
[Full review] When a critic confesses to having neglected many other pressing duties in order to unravel the mystery of a detective story a considerable efficiency in its construction may be argued. The supposed suicide of a millionaire, Hartley Parrish, occurs in the very first pages of the book, and the reader will hurry breathlessly through the twenty-six chapters which lie between him and the unravelling of the mystery. — THE SPECTATOR ARCHIVE (30 June 1922)
[Full review] Good old fashioned country house novel which I quite enjoyed. Sort of locked room, suicide or murder mystery. There is a wealthy industrialist with a mysterious past, poor gentlefolk, etc. A love interest, a will and most of the other necessary components of the genre. Not outstanding but fans of these between the wars crime novels like myself will probably quite like it. — John, GOODREADS (January 26, 2013)
Resource:
- A previous ONTOS article about Valentine Williams's writing philosophy is HERE.

Category: Thriller fiction

The Hext Files

Most Golden Age aficionados have heard of Eden Phillpotts, but only a few might know that he wrote under another name, "Harrington Hext," something he managed to keep hidden from his contemporaries for a while. Apparently, when Phillpotts wanted to escape the confines of ordinary fiction and let his imagination run wild he used the "Hext" alias.

As the following shows, for reviewers of his time Phillpotts was like the little girl with the curl: When he was good, he was very, very good, but when he was bad . . . .

NUMBER 87.
By Harrington Hext [Eden Phillpotts, 1862-1960].
The Macmillan Company.
1922. 255 pages. $2.00
[Review excerpts] ON ONE occasion a certain Alexander Skeat was the guest of honor at a certain Club of Friends in London who met together for social relaxation. From time to time they entertained distinguished visitors who addrest them on some subject of interest which was afterwards discust.
The impression made by Skeat was not altogether pleasing, yet the club was horrified to read a week later in the Times, an account of his murder. A policeman in St. James Park heard a cry from one of the paths and hurrying thither found Skeat lying on his face. This policeman declared that close by he saw dimly in the fog a large animal, unlike anything he had ever seen before, with a long neck, narrow head and glowing eyes. He blew his whistle, whereupon the thing, evidently alarmed, hopped twice, spread a large pair of wings, ascended into the air and disappeared.
An examination of Skeat's body revealed only a small red speck under one shoulder-blade, from which proceeded an incision, no larger than a thread, which reached the heart, while a further analysis showed a sudden and unaccountable disintegration of the component parts of the body.
All London is aroused, for it appeared as if Skeat had been killed by a force unknown to science, for the story of the strange animal is hardly considered.
. . . The next startling event is the entire destruction of the Albert Memorial. An event that would doubtless be welcomed by thousands of English.  . . .
. . . Some readers can not enjoy a mystery story unless everything is clearly explained in the end. Of course the explanation is necessarily based upon a hypothesis, which, being granted, is satisfactory. The book is extremely well written and the various discussions held in the Club of Friends enlarge the interest beyond the mere solution of the mystery. — "The Mysterious and Murderous 'Bat'," THE LITERARY DIGEST (May 13, 1922)
[Full review] A pseudo-scientific mystery story that would raise gooseflesh on a billiard ball. — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (June 1922; go to page 412, top)
[Excerpt] . . . Phillpotts's first sf [science fiction] novel was a thriller, Number 87 (1922) as by Harrington Hext, which revolves around a powerful new Power Source and an [SPOILER]; other thrillers as by Harrington Hext engage occasionally in the supernatural. — SFE: THE ENCYLCOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION ("Eden Phillpotts")
THE THING AT THEIR HEELS.
By Harrington Hext [Eden Phillpotts, 1862-1960].
The Macmillan Company.
1923. 334 pages.
[Full review] A story of fanaticism, dealing with the strange nemesis that pursued an English family. — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (December 1923; go to page 454, top left)
WHO KILLED COCK ROBIN?
By Harrington Hext [Eden Phillpotts, 1862-1960].
The Macmillan Company.
1924. 350 pages. $2.00
[a.k.a. WHO KILLED DIANA?]
[Full review] Why "Cock Robin" for a girl? One is a trifle annoyed with Mr. Hext for having assigned to Diana this meaningless and unexplained masculine nickname, apparently for no other purpose than to provide a catching title.
The first part of the book, in presenting facts preparatory to the later mystery, keeps the reader a little too long in the company of people who are no more than disagreeable and antipathetic until they become enmeshed in actual crime. After that point is reached the remainder is satisfactorily enlivened by the doings of a super-villainess, whose little tricks with arsenic are daring and diabolical. She is interesting, if untrue. — "The New Books," THE OUTLOOK (May 21, 1924)
THE MONSTER.
By Harrington Hext [Eden Phillpotts, 1862-1960].
The Macmillan Company.
1925. 328 pages. $2.00
[Full review] Thriller, by an author who does far better when he writes under his own name. — "Notes on New Books," THE OUTLOOK (June 24, 1925)
[Full review] If only the enigmatic gentleman who writes detective stories under the nom de plume of Harrington Hext—said to be the alias of an author of prominence in another field—had suppleness of manner and were able to make his people talk like everyday human beings instead of handing each other solid chunks of conversational bricks, or even of set speeches, we should have the mystery story raised to an nth degree. For he has not only rare ingenuity in the building of his plots but a constructive imagination.
The stage setting for this one of his tales is particularly good: its centrepiece is an immense, ruinous old warehouse at the edge of a small channel port, a town that has lost its maritime importance with the coming of the railroads but which was once a favorite resort of smugglers. Of course there is an underground passage from the store house to a neighboring farm, and, of course, the assortment of murders takes place in the old building. — "The New Books," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (September 12, 1925)
Resources:
- The GAD Wiki page for Phillpotts is HERE. ONTOS previously featured him HERE; Curt Evans has an overview of Phillpotts's career HERE.
- The Internet Speculative Database (ISFDb) has listings of Phillpotts's non-detective fiction HERE, while SFE: The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has an extensive rundown of his fantasy and science fiction HERE.

Categories: Thriller fiction mixed with Fantasy/Science fiction

Friday, October 10, 2014

"There Are Murders, There's a Detective, and Sleuthing of a Sort, but the Solution Is in the Stratosphere"

When it comes to Golden Age mystery writers who have virtually zero presence on the World Wide Web, Sidney Williams just about tops them all; when his books did get reviewed (and the six below are the only ones we presently know about), they rarely got more than one liners. Williams's series detective was Jabez Twombley, characterized by one reviewer as an "American J. G. Reeder."

THE BODY IN THE BLUE ROOM.
By Sidney Clark Williams (1878-1949).
The Penn Publishing Co.
1922. 318 pages.
[Full review] The literary editor of the Philadelphia "North American" indulges in a spree and affords thrilling entertainment. — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (May 1922; go to page 297, bottom)
IN THE TENTH MOON.
By Sidney Clark Williams (1878-1949).
The Penn Publishing Co.
1923. 325 pages.
[Full review] Murder, mystery, love—from whatever point of view, this is excellently well done. — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (September 1923; go to page 63, bottom right)
MYSTERY IN RED.
By Sidney Clark Williams (1878-1949).
The Penn Publishing Co.
1925. 320 pages. $2.00
[Full review] There is none of the usual preparatory tinkering evident before this yarn takes a swift and early plunge into the seething waters of tempestuous action.
Three gentlemen, Dr. Caswell, the elderly host, his younger friends, Anthony and Delancey, land from the sailing yacht, Viva, on Nyatt Island off the New England coast. They crave adventure, and all unsuspected it greets them the moment they set foot on the shore.
"Are you Griffis?" asks a burly club-footed individual of Delancey. "Suppose I am," answers the latter, and thereby lets himself and his two companions into the three most thrilling days they have ever experienced.
The hostility and persecution of a powerful rum running aggregation, with receiving quarters on the island, immediately centers upon the newcomers, but there are numerous other characters and complications continuously supplied which insure a ceaseless round of excitement for the reader.
In totalling the list of attractions which combine to present a first class show of its kind, we may cite conspicuously: One murder, two abductions, two rapid-fire love affairs, intrigue, and mystification, all materializing with an adroit swiftness which keeps one constantly, if blindly, on the alert for what will happen next.
And not the least agreeable feature of the whole lies in Mr. Williams's style which, for a novel of this sort, is singularly readable and cultivated. If there must be mystery stories (we are one who owns to a secret weakness for them), their quality could be immeasurably bettered were less creditable workers in the field to study Mr. Williams's prose as a guide to the mastery of pure and yet intensely vital diction. — "The New Books," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (May 9, 1925; go to page 749, first column, middle)
[Full review] Bootleggers spoil a holiday, and their punishment provides numerous thrills. — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (June 1925; go to page 468, right bottom)
THE DRURY CLUB CASE.
By Sidney Clark Williams (1878-1949).
The Penn Publishing Co.
1927. 318 pages.
[Full review] Well contrived murder mystery—guess it if you can! — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (April 1927; go to page 212, right bottom)
[Full review] "The Drury Club Case" is much the best of his murder mysteries. It is bright, amusing, and almost impossible of solution until the final untying of knots. This is an unusual story, and one which all lovers of this kind of fiction should read at once. — J. F., "The Editor Recommends," THE BOOKMAN (April 1927; go to page 215, left bottom)
THE MURDER OF MISS BETTY SLOAN.
By Sidney Clark Williams (1878-1949).
D. Appleton-Century Co.
1935. 293 pages.
[Full review] Unfortunate lady found dead in her Phila. apartment after wild party. American "J. G. Reeder," name of Twombley, called in by D.A. - Miss Sloan was poisoned. Other occasional deaths prop up interest in Twombley's plodding among the too gay, too rich suspects. - Verdict: O.K. for t.b.m. — "The Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (April 27, 1935)
THE ACONITE MURDERS.
By Sidney Clark Williams (1878-1949).
Dodd, Mead, & Co.
1936. 248 pages.
A check on a bank in Massachusetts, the print of a heel in the soot-crusted snow in an alley, offer the only clues for detective Jabez Twombley to unravel the murder plot that linked the lives of three widely separated people. — WorldCat summary
[Full review] Reporter, city editor, and woman jabbed with aconite. Jabez Twombley bumbles through case. - There are murders, there's a detective, and sleuthing of a sort, but the solution is in the stratosphere. - Verdict: Very puzzling. — "The Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (April 4, 1936)

Category: Detective fiction

Monday, October 6, 2014

"The Explanation Is Logical, If Not Quite Probable"

MIDNIGHT.
By Octavus Roy Cohen (1891-1959).
Dodd, Mead & Co.
1922. 281 pages. $1.75
Online HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.
For this author, detective fiction was a sometime thing:
Octavus Roy Cohen was born in South Carolina. He was educated at the Porter Military Academy, and then attended the Clemson University. He worked as a newspaper editor from 1910 to 1912. He wrote a series of stories about African-Americans that were published in The Saturday Evening Post. In 1913, he was admitted to the South Carolina bar and practiced law in Charleston for two years. Between 1917 and his death he published 56 books, including humorous novels, detective novels, scripts and plays, and short stories. — OPEN LIBRARY
[Full review] The mystery of a murder is cleverly put before the reader. A woman, carrying a bag, gets into a supposedly empty taxicab at midnight at a railway station and orders the driver to take her to a certain address.
When he gets there, the woman is not in the cab, but a murdered man is; and the bag handed to the driver by the woman turns out to belong to this murdered man and contains his clothes. The driver is honest and innocent. The explanation is logical, if not quite probable. — "The New Books," THE OUTLOOK (February 22, 1922)
[Full review] Octavus Roy Cohen's "Midnight" is an intriguing detective story contingent on the murder of a man of wealth and position. The charming fiancĂ©e of the murdered man, her brother, the beautiful and unhappy wife of a middle-aged financier, her sister the young flapper who plays such an important part in untangling the mystery, a valet, a taxi driver, and the chief of police are all well drawn characters who fit smoothly into the plot and in their turn excite our sympathy, amusement, and distrust, feeding the flame of curiosity to the end. — "Recent Books in Brief Review," THE BOOKMAN (April 1922)
. . . Midnight features a fairly complex plot unreeled at a slower pace than in many works. Older novels of detection often display social mores that seem strange to modern eyes, for example not mentioning a woman's name at the club or the terrible consequences of cheating at cards or in some other way being touched by the rancid breath of scandal. [Amateur criminologist] David Carroll must navigate these treacherous waters to solve the mystery of the who and how and why of the crime. — Mary Reed, MYSTERY*FILE (10 January 2009)
Resources:
- Mike Grost discusses other works by Cohen HERE, as does Jon Breen HERE.
- Wikipedia has an article about Cohen HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

"Heartily Recommended As a Thoroughly Interesting and Absorbing Story"

SCARHAVEN KEEP.
By J. S. Fletcher (1863-1935).
Knopf.
1922 [1920 in U.K.]. 316 pages. $2.00
Online HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.
In this one, Fletcher wobbles between thriller and detective story with, according to these reviews, pleasing results:
[Full review] MYSTERY, character, love, a setting that combines the romance of the theatrical profession with the oddity of a quaint village on the Scottish border: satisfying ingredients for a detective yarn.
"Scarhaven Keep" is, I think, J. S. Fletcher's best. There seems to be no writer of this type of fiction who is able to keep so well his sense of plot and of characterization.
If you like detective stories, here is one that I can recommend with vigor. It is well written, too. Think of it! — "The Editor Recommends," THE BOOKMAN (March 1922; Jump To page 65, top left)
[Excerpts] BASSETT OLIVER, the well-known actor, was missing. He had closed his engagement at Northborough on Saturday night and was to open at Norcaster, a neighboring town, on the following Monday evening.
He left the hotel at Northborough at eleven o'clock on Sunday morning, had taken a ticket for Scarhaven, a little village on the coast reached by a branch line, and that was the last heard of him.
His failure to turn up at Norcaster for a rehearsal on Monday morning started an inquiry which elicited these facts, and consternation reigned in the company, where he was much liked.
This is the agreeably thrilling opening of Mr. J. S. Fletcher's "Scarhaven Keep," one of the best of his many good mystery stories.  . . .
. . . There is plenty of incident, both by sea and land, and the book may be heartily recommended as a thoroughly interesting and absorbing story.  . . . — "The Missing Actor," THE LITERARY DIGEST (April 15, 1922)
Resources:
- A mostly favorable collection of GOODREADS reviews is HERE.
- Previous ONTOS encounters with Fletcher are HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

"It Is Surely Better, Other Things Being Equal, to Keep the Structure Sound and the Wires Hidden"

THE UNSEEN HAND: STORIES OF DIPLOMATIC ADVENTURE.
By Clarence New (1862-1933).
W. R. Caldwell & Co.
1918. 376 pages.
Online HERE, HERE, and HERE.
Contents:
(1) "The Mystery of the Free Lances"
(2) "The Aldershot Affair"
(3) "Touching Upon the Honor of Islam"
(4) "The Neutrality of Holland"
(5) "The Greater Plot"
(6) "The Skager-Rack and Kitchener"
(7) "The Mysterious Camp in the Pyrenees"
(8) "A Machiavellian Coup in Roumania"
(9) "The Shifting Ministries and the Green Circle"
(10) "The Breeding of Suspicion"
(11) "Capt. Creighton's Account of the Russian Revolution"

The First World War (1914-18) was both a massive disaster and a transformative event, producing repercussions that are still being felt today. The Great War was also a chance for thriller writers to run riot; one of them was Clarence New:
[Full review] "The Unseen Hand," while it has more the form of a novel . . . is in effect a series of linked episodes in the present fashion. Here our narrator is an American sleuth-journalist. Our theme is the mystery of the "diplomatic Free Lance," whose distinction it is to have "intervened—not once but fifty times since 1914—to save England from disaster, and, in so doing, unquestionably preserved the structure of modern civilization."
This useful person turns out (rather too early in the game) to be a well-known English lord, who is really [SPOILER], but under any name a most ingenious and accomplished fellow. Unhappily, the whole affair is too elaborate and artificial—or rather its elaboration and artificiality are insufficiently concealed even for our complaisance as patrons of this sort of performance.
It is said that people who make a habit of the fiction of crime and mystery are indifferent to questions of "literary" quality. In that fiction, no doubt, one finds a mechanical romance nearly independent of the graces and accessories one demands in other types of fiction. Is it a really new thing? Does it deserve a patent? Is it at any rate a fresh contrivance or combination of old devices? These are the questions the expert reader of detective stories asks himself. But he is not precisely (or always) a fool; and it is surely better, other things being equal, to keep the structure sound and the wires hidden. — "Substance and Mechanism," THE NATION (July 20, 1918)
[Full review] . . . "The Unseen Hand" by Clarence Herbert New works out in wild and somewhat unconvincing improbability an excellent idea of a sort of super-secret service group of amateurs.  . . . — Brian Hooker, "Concerning Yarns," THE BOOKMAN (May 1919; go to page 313, top right)
Category: Spy fiction

Friday, October 3, 2014

"The Story Is Not Badly Done"

DR. SYN: A TALE OF ROMNEY MARSH
By Russell Thorndike (1885-1972).
Doubleday, Page.
1915. 301 pages.
Online HERE and HERE.
Filmed several times, including 1963 (IMDb).
When actor Russell Thorndike turned his hand to adventure fiction, he was remarkably successful. The inspiration for his seven-book saga of Dr. Syn adventures came about like this:
. . . The story idea came from smuggling in the 18th century Romney Marsh, where brandy and tobacco were brought in at night by boat from France to avoid high tax. Minor battles were fought, sometimes at night, between gangs of smugglers, such as the Hawkhurst Gang and the Revenue, supported by the army and local militias in the South, Kent and the West, Sussex. — Wikipedia
An original review:
Dr. Syn, by Russell Thorndyke [sic], is a tale of wild adventure and villainy, told with such cheerful and engaging impudence as, in a measure, to disarm criticism.
The period of the tale is "in the days of George Third, with Trafalgar still unfought"; the scene is a fishing village on the Kentish coast, rejoicing in the name of Dimchurch-Under-the-Wall, and the chief actors are the village squire, the minister, the sexton and undertaker, the hostess of the village inn, and a fine assortment of king's officers, smugglers, members of the press gang, and other typical figures of those disorderly and hazardous times.
Considered as a type, the story is not badly done, and the class of readers who like the type will undoubtedly derive satisfaction from this example of it. But we cannot disregard the fact that there is a suggestion of gargoyle ugliness about the majority of the personages in the story; one feels that no artist, other than a Hogarth or some one of the mighty caricaturists of his period, could, if called upon to illustrate the story, quite live up to the requirements.
And the happenings of the story are so fantastic. The discovery that the pious minister is the once terrible buccaneer and cut-throat, and that the meek little undertaker, perpetually measuring friends and foes indiscriminately for their coffins, is the ringleader and master mind of a vast smuggling enterprise, is somehow all too grotesque and unbelievable to be greatly entertaining.
But the present reviewer frankly admits that his quarrel is with the type and not with the individual book. As far as the latter goes, the author has, in professional phraseology, done a good job. — Frederic Taber Cooper, "A Group of First Novels," THE BOOKMAN (May 1915; go to page 318, top right)
Thorndike attempted a non-Syn comedy crime novel called . . .

THE SLYPE.
By Russell Thorndike (1885-1972).
Dial Press.
1928. 320 pages.
. . . Here the author is less interested in making his plot complicated than in making his people amusing. He has selected for the scene of mysterious disappearances, kidnapping, smuggling, attempted murder and so forth an English cathedral close and the surrounding parish. One has to know only a little about such a milieu to realize its possibilities for comedy and character sketch. Good use has been made of them.
An exciting story told in a pleasant narrative style with considerable skill, and a whole portfolio of Dickensian characters, drawn against a rich background make The Slype an almost perfect piece of light fiction. It is long, too, so that one dares let himself go in reading it, confident that he is not going to turn an innocent looking page and fall headlong into Finis. — Frances Lamont Robbins, "A Running Commentary," THE OUTLOOK (December 5, 1928)
Forget about the plot in this thriller, which must have creaked even in the ’20s and which Thorndike does not energize or even, I must confide, make much sense of at the end.  . . .  As I said, the plot is not the reason to read this novel; it should be read for Thorndike’s descriptive ability and his characters.  . . . First class entertainment if you aren’t a plot person. — William F. Deeck, MYSTERY*FILE (8 February 2012)
. . . There are plenty of puzzles and satisfying twists in “The Slype,” making it an ideal novel for a couple of lazy spring evenings.  . . . — Michael Dirda, THE WASHINGTON POST (May 7, 2014)
One of the Dr. Syn sequels was . . .

THE SCARECROW RIDES [American title].
By Russell Thorndike (1885-1972).
Dial Press.
1935. 344 pages. $2.00
Dr. Syn, pirate turned clergyman, helps honest Romney Marsh smugglers and thwarts numerous villains in tale of 1770s. - Follows not unfamiliar pattern (vide J. Farnol) but has movement, romance, gawdy verbiage, and unremitting action. - Verdict: Good of its kind. — "The Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (November 16, 1935)
Resources:
- Thorndike was also a movie actor; his filmography is HERE.
- Wikipedia has a comprehensive page about the character of Dr. Syn HERE, and there's a website devoted to the good doctor HERE.

Category: Crime and adventure fiction